Young pigeon fanciers: meet the new kids on the flock | Birds

When Boris the fantail arrived in Callum Percy’s life in 2020, the 29-year-old trainee teacher was immediately smitten. Boris had been discovered by a family friend in a dishevelled state after what looked like a run-in with a sparrow hawk, its blond-white tail as fluffy as a cumulus cloud.
“We called him Boris after the prime minister as his feathers were all over the place when we found him,” Callum laughs as his 13-strong flock of fantails, frillbacks and capuchines coo in the aviary behind him. He and his girlfriend, Serena Mihaila, 24, also a trainee teacher, installed the 6ft by 4ft wooden and mesh aviary and nesting area in the garden of their Derby home earlier this year.

For now, Callum and Serena are fancy birders – they keep their frilled, coloured and crested feathered friends for the sheer pleasure of appreciating their looks. But next year, when the couple buy their own home, they would like to start exhibiting at shows. That means upstaging Boris and co with some purer-breed pigeons, such as frillbacks with more erect frills or capuchines with elaborate, super-fluffy head crests. At show, these headturners will be assessed for their appearance, good breeding and how they sit in their handlers’ hands.

Along with fancy birders, there are two other distinct groups of pigeoneers: keepers of long-distance pigeons for the racing circuit, as kept by King Charles on his Norfolk estate in Sandringham; and performance pigeon enthusiasts, such as those who keep Birmingham rollers – first bred in the West Midlands city in the 1860s for their ability to perform aerial acrobatics – and high-flying breeds, such as teddies and Indian pearls, prized for their soaring flight.

Lofty ambition: Serena Mihaila and Callum Percy at their garden aviary in Derby. Photograph: Dan Burn-Forti/The Observer

As 20-something pigeoneers, Callum and Serena are no longer a rare species. Since the pandemic, the Royal Pigeon Racing Association has reported a rising interest from younger people in pigeon-keeping. In the US, according to Phillip Fry, host of the All About Pigeons Podcast, which covers Europe, Australia and the US, 80% of the new intake of his pigeon racing clubs are aged 20 or below, a demographic matched in Europe, says Fry. The rise of “one loft racing”, in which pigeoneers buy a bird and send it to be raised with other pigeons in a shared loft where they are then raced against each other, has increased access to the sport for younger enthusiasts. “You now no longer need outdoor space or infrastructure like lofts to dabble,” says Fry. Plus, “pigeons are usually cheap to purchase and feed, they are very hardy and they don’t present the ethical problems you can have with pet birds, such as parrots, which are often trapped in the wild to be sold as pets.”

Callum is perfectly aware that his hobby does seem odd to some of his contemporaries. “When you tell them you keep pigeons, they think of town pigeons – the rock pigeons you see in cities that people call, unfairly I think, ‘rats of the sky’,” he says. “But if I have a bad day, I head into the aviary and Boris pets me and does a little dance, or I stroke one of my frillbacks, with their soft, curly down, and I feel really at peace.” That said, relations within the aviary are not always peaceful. Boris’s son, Brian, recently seduced a female fantail named Marilyn, introduced to the aviary as a mate for Boris. “It can be a bit tricky managing the pigeons’ romantic lives,” he admits.

‘Pigeon Girl’: Keelie Wright, former UK Young Pigeon Fancier of the Year. Photograph: Darren Kidd/Press Eye

Keelie Wright, 19, former UK Young Pigeon Fancier of the Year and winner of the coveted “Best Racing Pigeon” award at the British Homing World Show of the Year 2024, the Crufts of pigeon-keeping, believes this is an exciting time for the sport. “Young pigeoneers are causing a stir in a traditional scene that can sometimes live up to the flat cap and pipe-smoking stereotypes. There’s a bit of a rebirth with all the new blood after years of being seen as a dying hobby.”

Nicknamed “pigeon girl” in her home town of Magheralin, County Down, Keelie decided to stay close to home for her undergraduate degree, so she could spend her weekends mucking out the loft of more than 200 pigeons she shares with her father and grandad. All of the birds are related and bred down from a Belgian fast-racing line of Heremans-Ceusters that her dad first bought in the 2000s.

Keelie exhibits her birds “through the wire” (for their breeding and appearance in the cage) and “out of the pen” (for their feel and handling in the judges’ hands). “I tend to do best through the wire as our birds are good-looking,” she coos. From April to August, she races her birds: dropping them at sites in Penzance and St Malo in France, to fly back to Magheralin in clocked times.

Fellow racer Trent Lightfoot, 15, runs a one-loft race for owners under the age of 16 from his family home in Todmorden, West Yorkshire. Fifty-five young bird owners have entered his Northwest Junior One Loft Race in its inaugural year, for £50 an entry. The birds race back to the loft from “hotspots” (drop-off points) in Marlborough, Worcester and Stow on the Wold. Trent and his mum, Lisa Lightfoot, have secured sponsorship from seed companies Triple S and Benzing to reduce the birds’ upkeep costs. With Lisa on camera, Trent broadcasts the birds’ progress on Facebook live once a week.

“Staging the race means I get to race amazing pigeons from some amazing fanciers that I wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise,” says Trent, who also keeps sheep, chickens, ducks and turkeys on the family’s smallholding. Keen to spread the joy of pigeon-keeping as a sport for young people, “the love they have for home, the way they find their way back from afar” fills him with wonder. “I also love it when the tame ones sit on my head and shoulders.”

For ecologist Rob Dunn, it’s not only the fancy birds that deserve our love and attention. In 2007, the academic coined the term “the pigeon paradox” to account for the fact that the most common creatures that humans encounter in our urban world – rats, insects and city pigeons – are actively disliked or rarely noticed. If we could learn to connect with these urban creatures instead, says Dunn, we’d be more attuned to nature and, in turn, to the importance of animal conservation.

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It’s an idea that speaks to Nottingham pigeon champion Hannah Hall, 28, who went viral on TikTok in 2022 after recounting her meeting with Penny, a “scraggly” fledgling pigeon who decided to sit on her lap in a pub beer garden in Nottingham. Hall adopted the ailing pigeon, which other pub-goers had been shooing away, taking the bird home perched on her shoulder. She named the baby rock pigeon Penny with TikTokers’ help, and quickly became a mainstay of #pigeontok, where millions of social media users watch videos that exhibit a different side of the urban bird more often viewed as a pest than as a pet. (The 2024 breakout star of this online trend is Pidge, a bird adopted as a “purse pigeon” from a trash can by 26-year-old New Yorker Abby Jardine and who now accompanies her on adventures around the Big Apple.) Earlier this year, Hall founded Penny’s Pigeon Aid in tribute to her feathered pal, an advocacy group to rehabilitate pigeons’ reputation and combat what she sees as a rise in “anti-pigeon propaganda”.
“People are unkind towards pigeons and don’t see them as living things,” Hall says. The NHS worker is campaigning for measures to reduce the plastic and fishing litter that can wrap around birds’ necks, and a ban on anti-pigeon spikes in UK cities. Due to conflict with humans, town pigeons live an average of four years, whereas loft-kept pigeons live up to the age of 20. “I’d like there to be a pigeon appreciation day in the UK [as there is in the US] and I’d love to stage a celebratory ‘pigeon parade’ in Nottingham,” she says.

‘I love it when the tame ones sit on my head and shoulders’: Trent Lightfoot. Photograph: Dan Burn-Forti/The Observer

Pigeon spectacles already feature in the lives of Bilal Liaquat, 29, and wife Sadaf, 24. The couple have kept pigeons on the balcony of their Chiswick flat, and in a friend’s garden in Birmingham, since they moved to the UK from Pakistan in 2019. Bilal loves watching footage of tumbling roller pigeons, but the couple’s particular passion is for teddies, a high-flying performance pigeon first bred in the Pakistani city of Kasoor in 1963.
“I love that they fly high, it makes me feel so happy to watch them,” Bilal says. “The birds are calm with our two small children, too,” Sadaf adds. “They are nice to have as pets.” Bilal and Sadaf fly their birds in high-flight competitions in Pakistan, painting their wings pink and yellow so they can be spotted among a black mass of other birds. The 115,000 subscribers on Bilal’s YouTube channel, Bilal’s Pigeon Sport, tune in for weekly breeding tips in English and Urdu and to watch the soaring flights, his birds carving fluid arabesques against the skies of Lahore and west London.

Photograph: Dan Burn-Forti/The Observer

Bilal, like other bird keepers, admits that his hobby presents increasing challenges. Brexit red tape has inhibited imports of birds from prime racing breeders in Belgium and Germany, pigeons are being killed in number by peregrine falcons and sparrowhawks as populations of these birds of prey boom, and bird flu has led to intermittent bans on races from the continent. But back in Derby, Callum and Serena’s toddler son, Sami, has taken to the family’s feathered friends, particularly Boris, and a chirpy king pigeon called Kong. The couple’s more curious friends now come to hang out in the couple’s aviary and Callum plans to install a seating area so visitors can sit amid his perching birds. Serena tells me that pigeons are traditionally kept in her native Romania to teach children responsibility towards animals, though less sentimental eastern Europeans also keep pigeons for meat and for their eggs that taste like quails’ eggs. “I don’t like to eat them though, I’m quite squeamish,” she says.

There’s a bright future for these misunderstood avians in the Percy-Mihaila home, if not, alas, for Boris’s love life. “Yes, Brian and Marilyn are still an item,” Callum says of his aviary’s social dynamics. “Pigeons tend to be together for life once they’re bonded, you see.” He pauses: “Boris is taking it quite well though.” A bird coos. “That was Boris agreeing,” he laughs.

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